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Florida School Named After KKK Grand Wizard Will Get New Name

Confederate general Nathan B. Forrest.
Wikimedia Commons
Confederate general Nathan B. Forrest.

After decades of blistering debate about the balance between honoring Southern history and glorifying slavery and white supremacy, the Duval County School Board in Jacksonville, Fla., voted unanimously on Monday to rename Nathan B. Forrest High School.

Forrest is a polarizing figure from the Civil War era. Forrest was considered a succesful and fearless general, but it was also Forrest and his men who, after overpowering Union forces in Fort Pillow, near Memphis, went on to execute black soldiers after they had surrendered.

As PBS reports, after the war Forrest accepted the Union's victory, but he believed African Americans were the "laboring class." Eventually, he joined the KKK — known to use violent tactics in order to restore a pre-war hierarchy — and was elected its grand wizard.

As The Florida Times-Union reports the controversy over Forrest High School has raged since the school was named in 1959. A majority of students had voted for a different name, but the school board turned it down.

Since then, there have been multiple votes — most recently in 2007 and 2008 — by the school board to change the name. Every time, reports State Impact Florida, the vote broke down along color lines.

State Impact asked Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti what he thought the city of Jacksonville was leaving behind with the name change. He said:

"What was particularly striking for me was the fact of how the school was named. The students by vast majority wanted the name of the school to be Valhalla. Yet politics reigned. The Daughters of the Confederacy lobbied the school board and the name of the school ended up being Nathan B. Forrest.

"And that was clearly a reaction to the civil rights movement and desegregation. What I think is concerning about that is, one: it negated the voice of the students. But it also was a sign of the resistance to racial equality."

The big thing that will come of this, said Vitti, is that students of the school — more than 61 percent of whom are black — will know "that their voice matters."

The class of 2014 will be last one graduating from Nathan B. Forrest High School.

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.